Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Cocktail Chronicles: NW Food and Wine Festival Cocktail Competition

Recently I was asked to be one of five judges for the NW Food and Wine Show Cocktail Competition.  It was a $1,000 winner-take-all contest with ten contestants, and we were asked to judge on technique, hospitality, presentation, taste of cocktail, and an overall score.

I was deeply, deeply impressed by the sheer creativity coupled with the distinct professionalism of the entrants.  Could hardly find fault with any of them, honestly; and the final decisions came down to some very, very fine hairsplitting judgements at the end of things.

Without going into too much detail, I'll simply show you what nine of the ten cocktails were.  Sadly, I somehow lost one of them; chalk it up to poor photography. For the missing cocktail, I'll show the bartender instead.

And cocktails do a pretty good job of that as well...
First up was David Shenaut, Beaker and Flask/Central, with his cocktail "Thank You Santa, Love, Daddy", with New Deal Distillery Barley and Cane White Dog, Oaxaca mezcal, Mexican cinnamon, and Oaxaca Chocolate, all muddled together in a saucepan, poured and topped with cream flavored with mezcal and a chocolate star.  Served hot on a cold and rainy night.  Yum.  Earthy and rich and warm and satisfying.  (It might be apparent that David had just gotten back from a trip to Tequila and Oaxaca, and was still in the thrall of what he had discovered and brought back.)

Adam Robinson, Park Kitchen, entered his cocktail, the Black Friday Flip, created because he prefers a liquid dessert to a heavy one at Thanksgiving.  It is composed of Cofia Hazelnut Espresso Infused Vodka, allspice, Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix, and Rogue Shakespeare Stout,  with a raw egg added, and shaken violently.  It's a silky-soft and not too sweet alternative to pumpkin pie.  Or with pumpkin pie even.

Next up was Heather Brady, from Thatch Tiki Bar.  Heather, the Portland Queen of Tiki, showed she had plenty of style with other drinks as well, and whipped up a Red Berry White, a crisp and snappy mix of New Deal Gin #3, Cherry Heering, and Angostura bitters. Heather prefers her drinks simple and declarative, and that's what the Red Berry White was.  And you gotta love the resurrection of Cherry Heering!

Michael Lorberbaum, of McMenamins Ringlers Annex Bar, offered up his Fireside Flip, made with Edgefield 8 year old Brandy, Edgefield Longshot Immature Brandy (aged less than 2 years), Fireside Dessert Zinfandel, demerara sugar, a raw egg, shaken, and garnished with a Fireside Zinfandel Syrup and nutmeg.  Another silky flip, with creative use of the sweet, berry Zinfandel in and on the drink.

                 Neil Kopplin, of Clyde Common, and partner/co-creator of Imbue Oregon Vermouth, had to cancel his original cocktail at the last moment, so he browsed the floor of the NW Food and Wine Festival and came up with several inspirations---from which he created, on the spur of the moment, his cocktail "From the Hands of Buddha".

Neil selected Deco Ginger Rum, Hot Monkey Vodka by New Deal Distillery, Yuzu Luxe Sour, lime, and shavings of Buddha Hand Zest, over rocks.  Damn tasty stuff too.  Excellent with Dungeness crab sushi, which Neil scavenged for us, and worth replicating (which I hope Neil does for the summer).

Cute, perky, smiling Lindsay Matteson, from Mint/820, whipped up her cocktail, the Aurora Borealis, with New Deal #3 Gin (with juniper as the sole botanical!), POM pomegranate juice, Minx OJ Bitters (homemade, and the minx in question might just be Lindsay), orange juice, and a float of Gruet Brut Sparkling Wine from New Mexico.  A sophisticated drink from a woman with sophisticated tastes.

Tommy Klus, of The Teardrop Lounge and Central, came in a relaxed mood, wearing his plaid robe for the holidays, and made what turned out to be the winning cocktail for the evening, the Feliz Noggy Nog, a confabulation of New Deal Mud Puddle Vodka (with fresh-roasted cacao beans placed in the vapor stream of the still during the making); Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal; Trader Tiki Cinnamon Syrup; Domain Schistes Maury 2007 (a dessert-like grenache from the Rhone; in a pinch, you can substitute a light port); xocolatl bitters; cinnamon; maraschino liqueur; and an egg.  Klus dusted the top of the drink with nutmeg through a christmas tree stencil, then dusted it with lightly with sugar.

A dangerous, challenging drink to make, with all the differing ingredients, and with the potential for over-sweetness if not balanced---could be fraught with disaster, but Tommy pulled it off; the Feliz Noggy Nog was delicious:  better than the best eggnog you've ever had, considerably lighter, and with considerably more complex flavors.  A winner, as it turned out.

Next up was Allison Webber, from the Irving Street Kitchen, with her Winter Solstice, a gorgeous combination and balance of flavors.  Allison started with her home-made reduction of apple cider, honey and thyme , added Edgefield Hedgehog Whiskey, Carpano Antica Formulae vermouth, Anchor Steam Christmas Ale, and Meyer Lemon.  After a shake/shake/shake for a good head of foam, and a garnish of organic rose hips, she served up to unanimous oohs and ahhhs from the judges.  The Winter Solstice had a superb balance of fruit, citrus, beer and spirits, and a great mouthfeel.  And Allison took first runner up, just a shade away from Tommy's Feliz Noggy Nog.

Then came Jabriel Donohue, from Acadia, with his Honeyed Words.  This time the gin of choice was Organic Nation, and the beer was a rare urbock rauchbier (made with smoked barley malt). Jabriel added some xocolatl bitters and honey, mixed, poured into tall, elegant, individual flutes, then topped with a beer and honey foam.  Again, the judges were impressed: the drink was beautiful and inviting, delivering itself up in three stages; first, there was honey, then the clear bite of gin, then a nutty, malty beer flavor, and finally a hint of autumn smoke.  Good enough for Jabriel to get second runner up.  And it was close.  Very close.

Coming up last in rotation was Mary Bartlett, from The Teardrop Lounge, making a big entrance with her own mini-boombox and custom music for the season, and plugging in a steam kettle for pre-heating the glasses for her Family Feud.  Mary concocted a mixture of New Deal Mud Puddle Vodka, El Tesoro Reposado Tequila, agave syrup, Branca Menta, lemon juice...and then topped it off with a light sprinkle of Molokai Hawaiian Red Sea Salt.  Chocolate, tequila, and mint:  who knew?  Apparently, Mary did.

It was a great competition, with some tremendous talent on display.  Proof of that was the final judging, with all the contestants coming so close, with so little point difference amongst them, that it could truly be said that every one was a winner.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What's In A Name? The Italo-Germanic Edition: Teroldego, Tazzelenghe, and Schioppettino

Words and names fascinate me.   They are a linguistic insight into a culture and a way of thinking.  And drinking.

So I 'collect' these words wherever and whenever I can.

The curious commingling of culture in north central and north east Italy---the Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli, and the Veneto---have created some wonderful and unforgettable wine names.

In the alpine valleys of the Trentino-Alto Adige, where it is still likely to find both Italian and German language labels, there is a grape called Teroldego, full formal name Teroldego Rotaliano.

Depending upon the authority you're listening to, that would be derived from "the gold of Tirol--or Tyrol", or from the German root word "teer", which means tar, and which alludes to some characteristic tarry aspects of the wine.

Whether gold or tar, though---and we'll likely never know a definitive answer to the question---you should try the wine.  It's a delightful medium-bodied red wine as brisk as those mountain meadows it comes from; and because it comes from a very cold climate, it's lean and lovely with plenty of acid.  And that intriguing slightly tarry aroma and flavor we already talked about.

A delightful and easily attainable Teroldego is made by Elisabetta Foradori

Over in Friuli, a region I truly love, enough so that I could easily concoct some fantasy of a past life there and could happily live there in my dotage as an impoverished American expatriate nibbling on prosciutto and sipping on wine and Illy cafe, there are, of course abundant names from the collision of Italian, German, Austrian, and Slovenian cultures that have trammeled back and forth over the centuries in this surprisingly quiet and pastoral little backwater (in terms of raging tourism, I mean to say.)

First there is Tazzelenghe, which is Italian for "cut the tongue", referring to the amazingly thin, sharp red wine with such high acids and phenols that it "slices the tongue" when it is tasted.  Sounds delicious, hm?

Well, can be good, although many think of it as an *ahem* acquired taste.  It is definitely an angular, sharp-edged wine, and needs food to temper its acerbity, but with a simple sandwich of prosciutto da San Nicola (a local treasure), a little butter (hey, can you really have too much fat in your diet?) and a crusty loaf of fresh-baked bread, maybe a little basilico, Tazzelenghe comes into its own.

For a reliable producer, look for Girolamo Dorigo Tazzelenghe.

The other Friulano wine---Schioppettino---is rather assertive as well, although not nearly to the degree of Tazzelenghe.  Schioppettino, which means 'little gunshot' in local Italian dialect, is an apt name for a wine that is almost explosive in the mouth with its tightly demarcated flavors that snap the palate to attention in a one-gun salute to vinous pucker power.

For a reliable producer, try Bressan Schioppettino.

But to step back from such literary over-reach, let's just say the Schioppettino is usually more tame than that, and can be a very satisfying red, in a charming, rustic sort of way.  Served quite well when an impromptu picnic in an Italian churchyard in the Grave del Friuli beckoned.  And to this day, I don't know if the slight, lingering notes of gunpowder were actual, or merely a product of my all too fertile imagination as I lolled contentedly on the greensward swilling the wine.

I think it doesn't really matter anyway.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Campo de Encanto Pisco: the best Pisco you'll ever taste

The traditional clear brandy of Chile and Peru, Pisco, has had three brief flirtations with fame in the U.S.  It’s about to have another.  And this one could be the most famed of all.
The History Stuff...
In the waaaaay back of cocktail history, the 1800s, an unknown became instantly famous when a trading ship arrived in San Francisco from Peru with, among other goods, a fiery but silky brandy from the port of Pisco. 
Immediately thereafter an enterprising soul created a popular drink called the Pisco Punch, a sweet but potent concoction of tropical fruits and the clear, unaged, aromatic grape brandy.  It was all the rage in rowdy San Francisco.
The punch, and the spirit, however, remained largely a San Francisco and west coast phenomenon, and never became widely known in other areas.
In the 1970s, Pisco had a second surge, partly because of an outrageous black bottle that looked like an ancient temple carving and partly because of another iconic drink, the Pisco Sour, an aromatic and foamy variation on a whiskey sour---which was also created in San Francisco. (Local Peruvian restaurant Andina makes a classic Pisco Sour.) 
This time Pisco did go nationwide, but the fad waned and the South American brandy became an almost forgotten spirit again, remembered only by a few historical-minded bartenders.
In the 1990s, with the onslaught of Latin American cuisine as a major force shaping the food world in the U.S., Pisco made another comeback, and more brands became available, but it still lacked that final ingredient  for lasting success.  Something was missing, it seemed.
Back to today...
Three guys in San Francisco figured out what was missing: passion.  They were passionate about pisco, and set out to make the best pisco possible.  Duggan McDonnell, of Cantina in San Francisco; sommelier and spirits maven, Walter Moore; and Peruvian distiller Carlos Romero put their cumulative passion together to create a “pisco of the people” in an artisanal, small batch, high quality pisco.
The result:  Campo de Encanto Pisco.  It’s not ‘just another pisco.’  It sets a new standard for pisco, and elevates it to a whole new level of prominence.  (Yes: it’s that good.)
The Slightly Technical Stuff...
In Peru, they take pisco very, very seriously.  They claim it as their national spirit and constantly squabble with rival Chile over who can claim pisco honors. 
Pisco Puro: essentially, a pisco made from one of the approved grape varieties.
Pisco Aromatico: pisco made from one of the approved aromatic varieties.
Pisco Mosto Verde: made from ‘green must’, or partially fermented grapes that retain a bit of sweetness
Pisco Acholado:  ‘half breed’; a blend of Puro and Aromatico grapes
The Stuff Itself...
Campo de Encanto is Pisco Acholado, a brilliant combination of Puro and Aromatico that achieves a fresh, rich, silky-textured aroma and flavor profile that is bound to please even the most demanding palate.  It is both fruity and spicy; soft and peppery; clean yet aromatic; and manages a perfect balance of flavors.
Although Peru requires only 3 months of mellowing or 'resting' pisco, Encanto ages for a full 9 months for extra smoothness.
With the pure unadulterated expression of aromatic grapes at its core, Campo de Encanto is superb all by itself; it truly shines, though, when used as a cocktail base because it marries beautifully with a wide range of flavors without ever losing its essential identity (think of the persistence of 100% agave tequila versus the simple and cheap mixto grade, and you’ve got the gist of it).
Bartenders are a pretty tough crowd with high standards.  The quality has to be there for them to get excited.  And they are almost universally excited about Campo de Encanto Pisco, so you’ll see it on back bars at the best places and as a component in many creative cocktails.